Panhandlers still press for money, transients still congregate in front of businesses, and the homeless with addiction issues still sleep on city sidewalks.
Some downtown business owners and shoppers have had enough, but there’s little the Missoula Police Department can do other that write offenders a ticket, and even that hasn’t helped.
“Our business community is feeling the frustration because they’re not getting the response they need,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association. “Our police officers are frustrated because they’re limited in what they can do.”
The City Council’s Public Health and Safety Committee met Wednesday to discuss implementation of Missoula’s Pedestrian Interference and Aggressive Solicitation Ordinance.
While the city ordinance was designed to address such issues as aggressive panhandling and sitting and sleeping on downtown sidewalks, some believe it has failed, and it may be making the problem worse.
“The ordinance really hasn’t helped, and I’m not so sure it didn’t re-educate these guys,” said Worden’s Market owner Tim France. “They are more intractable, it seems. They’re clear about knowing where they can sit, and I’ve watched them sit for hours and hours and hours, even after multiple contacts by law enforcement.”
To deal with the problem, some have called for fines and possible jail time for repeat offenders. France has adjusted his business by monitoring liquor sales and types. Other downtown establishments that sell packaged liquor may do the same in an effort to forge their own solution.
France said he recently observed two intoxicated transients engage in a fistfight in the middle of the day with families nearby. It was one of several examples given to highlight the problems business owners and downtown shoppers face.
“It’s just a very graphic example of what we see on a very regular basis,” said France. “Our inability to move people along is glaring, and they seem hardwired knowing they don’t have to move on.”
Ellen Buchanan, executive director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, met recently with developers eying a high-priced project in the Riverfront Triangle.
After the meeting, one developer spent an evening downtown. Despite his worldly travels, he was less than pleased with the level of panhandling, aggressive behavior and inebriation he witnessed among Missoula’s transient population.
“He told me, ‘You’ve got some cleaning up to do in your downtown,’ ” Buchanan told the committee. “This is someone who’s looking at a multi-multimillion-dollar investment downtown. His concerns certainly caught my attention.”
Council members expressed varying levels of concern, including Bryan von Lossberg, who agreed that citations alone aren’t working, and Emily Bentley, who asked why jail time wasn’t already on the books.
To that question, attorney Dan Cederberg said the city in 2009 considered adding jail time to the original ordinance but shied away for two reasons, including a lack of political will and the costs involved in doing so.
“If you put somebody in jail on a city ordinance violation, then the city is liable for the jail time,” he said. “There are often other costs associated with that, like medical treatment.”
Cederberg expressed his support for a tiered penalty system that includes increasing fines for each offense and jail as a possibility for repeat offenders.
He said a Missoula Municipal Court judge supports jail as an option as well, and will likely testify before the committee lending support for jail as a penalty.
“To make the ordinance effective, she needs that tool (jail) in her belt to make it work,” Cederberg said. “She would like the ability to effect jail time, and she’d like it to be effective jail time.”